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Why are Abenaki Nations challenging the legitimacy of Vermont's state-recognized tribes?

A collage of newspaper clippings with headlines reading things like: Vermont Abnakis fighting for tribal designation; Grand Chief Panadis to visit Camp Abnaki; state recognizes two Abenaki bands; Abenaki recognition to be official today;  two Indians, a brother and sister proud of their ancestry, have made home on Thompson's Point in Charlotte for 45 years. The word  "Recognized" is written across these clippings in white letters. Spalshes of yellow, blue and grey are overlayed on the image.
Laura Nakasaka
Vermont Public
The three-part series examines contested claims of the legitimacy of Vermont’s four state-recognized tribes: the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, the Koasek Traditional Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation and the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuck Abenaki Nation.

"Recognized" is a special series from Brave Little State about Abenaki peoples and the ongoing dispute about who belongs to their communities.

Key takeaways

Chapter One: Two Abenaki First Nations, headquartered in Quebec, contest the legitimacy of the groups that the state of Vermont recognizes as Abenaki tribes — a conflict that has its roots in disputed historical narratives. [Listen Now]

Chapter Two: That disputed history is partly why Vermont’s groups failed to get federal recognition. But about a decade ago, Vermont set up its own process and recognized four tribes: the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, the Koasek Traditional Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation and the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuck Abenaki Nation. A key aspect of the groups' argument is that Abenaki peoples hid for nearly 200 years in Vermont, in part to avoid statewide eugenics policies. But recent evidence casts doubt on this narrative. [Listen Now]

Chapter Three: Today, the state and the groups it recognizes as Abenaki tribes have a different definition of what it means to be Indigenous, compared to many Indigenous Nations in the U.S. and Canada. And that matters, because there is power, authority and money at stake. Now, the First Nations in Canada are calling for a reexamination of Vermont's recognition process. [Listen Now]

Chapter One

Note: Our show is made for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio provided here. But we also provide a written version of the episode below.

To learn more about our approach to this story, you can read our editor's note, here.


Josh Crane: From Vermont Public and the NPR Network, this is Brave Little State. I’m Josh Crane.

Elodie Reed: And I’m Elodie Reed.

For the past 20 years, there's been this controversy in Vermont.

But for most of that time, it’s felt sort of hush-hush. Many people don't really like talking about it. Some would rather avoid acknowledging it's there in the first place.

But in the last couple years, it's gotten harder to ignore. More and more people have been speaking out.

Philip Brett: Her grandfather is in the picture.

Denise Watso: No he’s not.

Philip Brett: Yes he is. 

Elodie Reed: One afternoon this spring, a dozen people form a circle in a dusty parking lot, hunched against a chilly breeze.

Claude Panadis Jr.: It’s cold! It snowed at home this morning.

Elodie Reed: They’re standing outside the Ethan Allen Homestead Museum in Burlington. Ethan Allen is a celebrated figure in Vermont’s colonial history — or, not-so-celebrated.

Richard Witting: So the Allens, they were the lead family who, like, essentially surveyed most of the land in Vermont and like, acquired it, and then resold it.

Denise Watso: So more land grabbers?

Richard Witting: I mean, he's the number one land grabber.

Elodie Reed: Most of the people gathered in this parking lot drove down from Canada or up from Albany, New York.

But they’re not actually here to take issue with Ethan Allen. They’re here to protest an exhibit inside the building called “The Abenaki: Vermont’s First People.”

It was curated by a Vermont nonprofit, Alnôbaiwi,which says it’s dedicated to preserving Vermont Abenaki heritage.

A photo of people crowding into an exhibit space with an enlarged title on the wall behind the people, reading: The Abenaki: Vermont's First People.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Odanak First Nation citizens from Quebec and Albany, New York visit the exhibit inside the Ethan Allen Homestead Museum in Burlington, Vermont on May 17. Those citizens were there to voice their displeasure over the use of the photograph on the wall, which they say shows their ancestors. Odanak's government also took issue with the use of the photograph.

And here’s one more twist: These protesters, here to take a stand against a history exhibit dedicated to Abenaki heritage? They’re Abenaki.

Claude Panadis Jr.: We all came from Odanak just to make sure that we can see what’s going on and see if we can’t get our voices heard.

Elodie Reed: If you live in Vermont, you’ve probably heard of the Abenaki — they’re the original caretakers of the land now known as Vermont and New Hampshire, and also Quebec, Maine and Massachusetts. The groups you’re probably most familiar with are those that have been recognized by our state as Abenaki tribes. What you might not know is that there are Abenaki First Nations north of the border, in Canada. They have a very different type of recognition: federal recognition, from the Canadian government. They’re called Odanak First Nation and Wôlinak First Nation. Both Nations are headquartered in Quebec, and they’re both Western Abenaki.

Some people say it uh-BEN-uh-KEE, with the French pronunciation. We’re using the more Anglicized “AH-ben-ACK-ee.”

A photo of a black and white postcard reading "Indian Camp, Highgate Springs, Vermont." The image on the postcard shows women and children in the background, standing by the door of a cabin. In the foreground, a man in a hat holds a pan over a fire.
Odanak First Nation
This is the image at the center of Odanak First Nation's protest over an exhibit curated by the Vermont nonprofit Alnôbaiwi. The government as well as citizens of Odanak claim their ancestors are in this image. Alnôbaiwi claims the image shows the ancestors of one of the exhibit's curators, Holly LaFrance, who also belongs to a Vermont state-recognized tribe. The two places this postcard is publicly available — the University of Vermont, and the Vermont Historical Society — don't have identifying information for the people in the image.

Denise Watso: That’s the incompetence of this museum.

(unintelligible conversation)

Elodie Reed: Today, gathered in the Ethan Allen Homestead Museum parking lot, are citizens and allies of Odanak.

Claude Panadis Jr.: It’s family. Family is so important and cultural appropriation is a serious matter.

Elodie Reed: The thing they’re here to protest is the use of a single photograph in this Abenaki history exhibit. It’s from a 1906 postcard, which is captioned with the words: “Indian Camp, Highgate Springs, Vermont.” It has been enlarged and printed on a wall of the exhibit.

The photo is black and white. It shows women and children in the background, standing by the door of a cabin. In the foreground, a man in a hat holds a pan over a fire. And who that man is — and who he’s related to — are the main points of contention.

On one side are the Odanak First Nation government and some of its citizens, saying the man in the image is related to the Panadises — a well-established Abenaki family.

On the other, you have the Vermont nonprofit Alnôbaiwi, saying the man in the image is related to one of the curators of the exhibit, Holly LaFrance. She belongs to one of the groups that the state of Vermont recognizes as Abenaki.

A photo of a poster reading "the LaFrance Camp at Shipyard Bay." The poster has photographs on it and text describing people depicted in old black and white photos as members of the LaFrance family.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
The Vermont nonprofit Alnôbaiwi claims a photograph it uses in its exhibit shows the LaFrance family, the ancestors of one of the exhibit's curators, Holly LaFrance. Holly LaFrance belongs to one of Vermont's state-recognized tribes.

Denise Watso: They’re claiming Holly LaFrance in front of their family photo saying that she’s related — "that’s my ancestor." It’s a joke.

Elodie Reed: LaFrance isn’t here on this chilly spring day. And she has declined to be interviewed. Instead, volunteers from Alnôbaiwi wander out from the museum and into the parking lot, where Odanak citizens and some allies are circled up.

Within seconds, the arguing begins.

Denise Watso: Who are you, sir?

Philip Brett: I’m Philip Brett. ... What I am here to say is Holly has a picture of her grandfather in that picture. So you have basically proven that Holly is related to the Panadis family. Thanks.

Denise Watso: This is all the Panadis family. So you tell me they say— 

Philip Brett: Well, good, she is related to the Panadises then. 

Denise Watso: No.

Daniel Nolett: This is her genealogy, where do you see a family name in there — it goes back four generations. 

Philip Brett: It’s not— It’s not clear yet. 

Denise Watso: Right. Then don’t stand in front of their family photo and claim that it is if it’s not clear.

Philip Brett: Her grandfather is in—

Denise Watso: If it’s not clear then don’t stand in front of the photo.

Philip Brett: Her grandfather is in the picture.

Denise Watso: No he’s not.

Philip Brett: Yes he is. 

Denise Watso: No he’s not.

Philip Brett: Her grandfather is in the picture.

A black and white photo of a man in a vest.
Odanak First Nation
Nicolas Panadis is the ancestor that Odanak First Nation's government and citizens say is in the Alnôbaiwi exhibit photo.

Elodie Reed: There’s no way for me to say, with 100% certainty, who the man in this century-old photo is. I emailed the two places the image is publicly available — the special collection library at the University of Vermont, and the Vermont Historical Society. Neither had identifying information.


This fight over who is in a photograph on the wall of a museum exhibit in Burlington, it’s a microcosm of this controversy playing out around Vermont and beyond.

And it illustrates a lot of the tensions and frustrations baked into this situation. Emotions are high. People are upset.

Because this is really a fight over whether Vermont — and its state-recognized tribes — should decide who is Abenaki. And Odanak and Wôlinak First Nations, federally recognized tribesin Canada, don’t think they should.

This is a dispute that goes back at least two decades. But it didn’t really come into public view until 2022, at an event held at the University of Vermont.

Jacques Watso: I wanted to acknowledge friends of Odanak that came here today.

Elodie Reed: It was a symposium sponsored by UVM’s history department, described as featuring, quote, “unheard Abenaki voices from the Odanak First Nation.”

At that event, Abenaki citizens who belong to Odanak First Nation in Canada came to Vermont and said that the state-recognized tribes here are made up of people who aren’t really Abenaki.

Jacques Watso: They sell fake Native arts jewelry. They write books, they do conferences. They use the fishing and hunting rights that are treaty rights meant for real Abenaki. They distort our culture and language beyond recognition. They are erasing us by replacing us.

Elodie Reed: Members and allies of Vermont’s state-recognized tribes said these accusations hurt.

Jeff Benay: I'm getting calls, because we've got kids at UVM. Abenakis at UVM. And the concern is “Are we safe at University of Vermont?” Because if they weren't actually at this event, they heard. And they heard that the way the American Aben— the Vermont Abenaki were castigated.

Elodie Reed: The UVM event was the first time I — and many others — heard this sentiment shared so directly and publicly. But I’d heard whispers about this ever since starting to report agriculture stories for Vermont Public a few years ago. As soon as I started building relationships with sources involved in Indigenous issues, this question of legitimacy came up.

And I’ll just say here: I’m not Indigenous. But I have been the primary person reporting on this story in our newsroom. And through this reporting, we have learned from a number of Indigenous sources and experts that being Indigenous is different from other forms of identity, such as race or gender.

While there is not a universally agreed-upon definition of what it means to be Indigenous, one common understanding is that it is a political identity. Basically, that you’re a citizen of an Indigenous Nation in addition to being a citizen of the U.S. or Canada. And that it is up to each Indigenous Nation to collectively determine who belongs and who does not.

But this gets complicated when it comes to Vermont’s state-recognized tribes. Because as we’re going to discuss in this story, they differ — a lot — from many Indigenous Nations. Not just because they’re recognized at the state level, which is relatively uncommon, but also because of how some of their members, and even leaders, define what it means to be Indigenous.

Rich Holschuh: There are all kinds of lived experiences. We are not less than, here. We are different.

Elodie Reed: And that difference is central to the question of legitimacy.

Not everyone thinks we should be covering this controversy. We’ve experienced strong pushback on the stories we’ve published since the UVM event in 2022.

Don Stevens: There's also responsible journalism — and yes, I'm looking at you Elodie. To keep a one-sided narrative, for whatever reason that is, to just concentrate on Odanak’s issue and not be responsible in the journalism, for balance.

Elodie Reed: But in our reporting prior to that 2022 UVM event with Odanak citizens, we excluded both Odanak First Nation and Wôlinak First Nations, and their criticism of Vermont’s state-recognized tribes.

Josh Crane: For instance, you might remember this Brave Little State episode about Abenaki peoples from 2016:

Bethany Ladimer: What is the status of the Abenaki Native Americans in Vermont today?

Angela Evancie: We brought Bethany’s question straight to some of the people who can answer it best.

Josh Crane: That episode focused on Vermont’s state-recognized tribes, and their increasing visibility.

Shirly Hook: We’ve been here forever and they just recognized us.

Amy Hook-Therrien: People kept saying that there were no Natives in Vermont and everything like that, and then finally it was like, ta-da! Yeah there are.

Josh Crane: Well, the status of Abenaki peoples in Vermont today is more complicated and contentious than we’ve previously reported.

Elodie Reed: And some of you have been wondering about it, too.

A photo of two people sitting in chairs and smiling in sunglasses.
Jenny Prince
Jenny Prince, pictured here with her husband Jon, asked Brave Little State "what it means that the Odanak Abenaki First Nation of Quebec recently denounced all Vermont and New Hampshire tribes due to self-indigenisation."

Jenny Prince: My name is Jenny Prince. And I'm wondering what it means that the Odanak Abenaki First Nation of Quebec recently denounced all Vermont and New Hampshire tribes due to self Indigenization.

Josh Crane: Right around the time Elodie started her reporting on this issue, we got this question from Jenny Prince.

Elodie Reed: Prince lives in the Champlain Islands, and she is not Indigenous herself.

Josh Crane: She says she submitted this question to the show because she’d heard about this dispute, and it wasn’t getting a ton of media attention at the time.

Jenny Prince: I wanted to encourage Brave Little State to talk about this, because I think that within Vermont, it has been a really sensitive subject. And it hasn't been something that maybe a lot of people really welcomed. I think that Vermonters are protective of the Abenaki identity — white Vermonters, non-Abenaki Vermonters. 

Josh Crane: This conflict is connected to a long history.

Mali Obomsawin: We didn't travel here from somewhere else, we emerged here.

Elodie Reed: Both for Indigenous peoples, and settlers.

Philip Deloria: White Americans have dressed up, played Indian over time, from the revolution to the present day.

Josh Crane: And it’s connected to a disputed history.

Mitch Wertlieb: For the original Vermonters, the Abenaki, eugenics and racial prejudice led to a life lived in the shadows. 

Suzie O’Bomsawin: We never lived in hiding. This is not something I would like the next generation to read about.

Elodie Reed: It’s also related to a fundamental disconnect over what it means to be Indigenous.

Chawna Cota: I felt a sense of connection to that ancestor, who gave me that sense of connection to the land.

Kim TallBear: When it moves from being about a people, a Nation, a collective and defending their land and place-based rights, to defending your own individual rights based on some ancestral claim, that's a total problem.

Josh Crane: Part of the conflict is about whether the state of Vermont should be recognizing groups as Indigenous in the first place.

Vince Illuzzi: I don't think these people were coming forward for state recognition for any reason other than that they were of Abenaki descent and wanted to preserve their culture.

Elodie Reed: This is a conflict with money and power at stake.

Rich Holschuh: It's really clear to me that this is politics. And politics is about power and control.

Josh Crane: But also the right to be viewed as an authority on your community’s story.

Denise Watso: And I've heard this over and over, “We just want to honor you.” Well, to honor us is to listen to us, listen to what we are saying.

Elodie Reed: This is a story for anyone who wants to understand the deeper context of this controversy: from the history to the ongoing tension. Whether you’re a citizen of Odanak or Wôlinak First Nations, a member of Vermont’s state-recognized tribes, or neither.

Josh Crane: There’s so much to cover that we’re breaking it up into three episodes.

Welcome to “Recognized” — a special series from Brave Little State.

This is Chapter One. And a quick note here, that all three chapters of this story cover sensitive material, including some slurs. Listen with care. We’ll be right back.

Oldest stories

Elodie Reed: The story of Abenaki peoples is, broadly speaking, agreed upon until the year 1800 or so. In a way, that’s when this dispute begins — with disputed history.

But first: The word “Odanak” means “in the village” — and it’s a location that has been significant to Abenaki peoples for many generations, long before the year 1800. And long before any Europeans showed up on the continent.

So: Let’s take a road trip to Odanak.

Julia Furukawa: Good day. How are you, Elodie?

Elodie Reed: Better with coffee.

Elodie Reed: I met up with a reporter from New Hampshire Public Radio, Julia Furukawa, on a very cold day last winter.

Elodie Reed: Can't believe you got iced coffee, it’s 10 degrees out.

(sound of ice in a cup)

Julia Furukawa: The sound of success. 

Elodie Reed: We woke up very early.

Julia Furukawa: So I was technically awake at five.

Elodie Reed: And drove up to Odanak First Nation’s reserve in Quebec.

A photo of a person in a coat and ponytail outside a brown sided building with a dreamcatcher-like symbol with words reading Odanak Abenaki Nation. Above the symbol, trilingual words in French, English and Abenaki,  reading Gouvernement des Abenakis d'Odanak and Abenaki Government of Odanak and Atali W8banaki T8ald8zimek.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Odanak First Nation’s assistant general director, Suzie O’Bomsawin.

Elodie Reed: From the Vermont-Canada border crossing in Highgate Springs, Odanak is pretty much a two hour drive straight north. The reserve is right next to the Riviere Saint-Francois, or the St. Francis River. On that river bank sits Quebec’s first-ever Aboriginal museum institution, the Musée des Abénakis.

We visit the museum with Odanak First Nation’s assistant general director, Suzie O’Bomsawin.

She leads us towards a brick building.

Suzie O’Bomsawin: So this is the museum.

Elodie Reed: And she points out the museum is housed in the former Indian day school.

Suzie O’Bomsawin: It was a Catholic school, they were being taught in French. My grandfather went there. My great grandfather went there. Yeah, they were teaching about making sure they are going to be good civilian.

Elodie Reed: In other words:

Suzie O’Bomsawin: Taking away their Indian identity to make sure they fit into the Canadian society.

Elodie Reed: We walk inside the former-school-turned-museum, which is full of kids on a field trip. There’s a giant map of the Northeast near the entrance. That’s where Suzie begins our tour.

Suzie O’Bomsawin: So usually the tour of the museum start with the, like some words related to the territory, Ndakina. 

In English, Ndakina means “our territory.”

An image of a map of what's now the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada, overlaid with the Indigenous communities those lands belonged to before colonization. In the center is Wôbanakiak Abenakis, which takes up much of present-day Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public File
A map at the Musée des Abénakis on the Odanak First Nation reserve shows the ancestral lands of Northeast Indigenous communities pre-colonization. Abenaki territory stretches down from present-day Quebec through Vermont as well as into New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts.

Suzie O’Bomsawin: Our territory used to go all the way down to what is today Boston. And of course, Lake Champlain was part of our territory.

Elodie Reed: Lake Champlain is where Suzie says all of Abenaki history begins.

Suzie O’Bomsawin: Lake Champlain is actually our birthplace. According to the creation story of the Nation. We were made out of stone first, and then because it was not good enough, we were then made out of black ash. And this is why black ash is so important to us as a Nation.

Elodie Reed: This creation story can give you a sense of just how long Abenaki peoples — or known by another name, Wabanaki peoples, or “people of the dawn” — have been here, in this place.

Mali Obomsawin: We didn't travel here from somewhere else, we emerged here. 

Elodie Reed: This is Mali Obomsawin. She’s a citizen of Odanak First Nation who studies Abenaki history.

Mali Obomsawin: From that time, we spent generations and generations learning how to live here in these homelands.

Elodie Reed: And Mali Obomsawin, by the way, is only distantly related to Suzie O’Bomsawin — O’Bomsawin is a pretty common Abenaki last name.

Mali Obomsawin: We developed an incredible system of understanding the moon cycles, and there's lots of stories attached to that. And we have all our cultural heroes like Glooscap.

Elodie Reed: Mali says Glooscap is the first human and first Wabanaki.

Mali Obomsawin: And so Glooscap is hilarious, because he just kind of goes around, messing up, making mistakes and doing things like taking the easy way out and like having to learn over and over why it's important to, I guess, act with intention. He learns lessons for us, so that we have something to hold on to and make reference to in the way that we live our lives.

Elodie Reed: In addition to holding lessons, Mali says Wabanaki stories can give important information about the geological time periods during which Abenaki peoples have been here.

Mali Obomsawin: Some of our oldest stories talk about the time when the people learned that there was going to be an ice age. We also have stories about megafauna, like giant beavers, which we also know through Western science did exist here.

A photograph of white beads handing down on strings in a display case. Round wooden panels reading "glass' and "verre" are handing from other strings.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Beads are among the artifacts found in archeological digs in Odanak and across Abenaki territory. Odanak First Nation official Suzie O'Bomsawin says these artifacts point to Abenaki presence at Odanak prior to colonization.

Elodie Reed: Archeological digs have also verified stories about Abenaki peoples going to Odanak. Here’s Suzie O’Bomsawin again.

Suzie O’Bomsawin: With the diggings, we can actually say that that site was a site that was already known to Abenaki people before colonization, and it was for thousands of years.

Having proof of that was just so much comfort. Like now it's clear like, we are not refugees, we knew that place before.

Elodie Reed: Prior to colonization, Abenaki peoples weren’t just clustered at Odanak — they lived all throughout their territory. Back to Mali Obomsawin.

Mali Obomsawin: And we moved following the food, but also following and maintaining complex trade economies. And that would also be conducted through the waterways. And we knew a lot about the cultures surrounding us, our brother Nations and our ally Nations.

A photo of a person smiling at a table with hands on a woven mat.
Josh Crane
Vermont Public File
Mali Obomsawin is pictured here during an interview for a previous Brave Little State episode in 2022.

Elodie Reed: Fast-forward to the early 1600s. Mali says there was some warfare among nations during a period of what was likely food scarcity. Also happening at that time:

Mali Obomsawin: With the arrival of Europeans was the Great Dying.

Elodie Reed: Disease. Warfare. Enslavement and slaughter. One study shows the Indigenous population in the Americas declined by 90%, from 60 million people to only 6 million, in the first century after the arrival of Europeans.

Mali Obomsawin: And that is what really started to cause a lot of the great migrations and displacements and disruptions and whatnot, the lifeways at that time.

Elodie Reed: Abenaki peoples began moving out of places like Vermont and New Hampshire and into the northern parts of their territory, in modern-day Quebec. French colonists began setting up mission villages there. Among them were Odanak and Wôlinak, and Mali says these would become a place of refuge for permanent settlement, as well as temporary relief during colonial warfare.

Mali Obomsawin: At home, at Odanak and Wôlinak, we are still the stewards of those homelands. We never ceded those territories. But we did take refuge  from the warfare and the genocide that was targeting us. I think our ancestors decided that it was easier to stay alive on the north side of what would become the border.

A photo of a rock with a plaque on it reading: "NEMIKWALDAMNANA: We remember. This area is planted as a living memorial to the Saint Francis Indians..." The rest of the plaque is blocked by snow covering the ground.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
This memorial in Odanak commemorates the survival of the community after a raid on Oct. 4, 1759. That's when colonists attacked the village in the middle of the night and burned everything to the ground.

Elodie Reed: This brings us to the year 1800. Odanak and Wôlinak say their ancestors had left what is now Vermont and New Hampshire by then. And in the years following, they would visit and move back into southern areas of their territory, and places beyond, like the Adirondacks and the Capitol Region areas of New York.

Mali Obomsawin: And so we would travel down, and we also became economically dependent on trading with settlers. Right? And we also continued to go down and visit our relatives … in these various outposts that were created in that period from the 1800s and the 1900s.

Elodie Reed: Among those outposts was Thompson’s Point in Charlotte, Vermont. A 1954 newspaper article in the Burlington Free Press says seven or eight Abenaki families were living in tents at the turn of the 20th century. Among them were brother and sister William and Marian Obomsawin — there’s that name again. Their father, the newspaper article said, initially paddled to the spot by canoe, and later brought his kids from Canada after he’d built a house.

Nearly 50 years later, the Free Press story said the Obomsawins were the last living Abenakis at Thompson’s Point.

An image of an old newspaper article titled: Two Indians, a Brother and Sister Proud of Their Ancestry, Have Made Home on Thompson's Point in Charlotte for 45 Years. The article features a photo of two older people holding up baskets.
The 1954 Burlington Free Press article profiling the Obomsawins — who are referred to here as the Obunswams — living on Thompson's Point in Charlotte, Vermont.

Recordings that an anthropologist made of the Obomsawins in 1956 are kept in Dartmouth College’s Rauner Special Collections Library. That’s in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Mali Obomsawin recently studied for a research residency there, and she brought me one day this past spring.

Mali Obomsawin: And you’re with me, so you’re cool.

Elodie Reed: Inside the library, I ask Mali to play a recording of William Obomsawin.

Mali Obomsawin: Hopefully we won’t be too disruptive.

Elodie Reed: We’re including it here with permission from Odanak First Nation. In it, William Obsomsawin repeats a story passed down over many generations.

William Obomsawin: Shelburne Bay, where the British tried to cross the lake there. Where the British landed down there.

Gordon Day: Shelburne Point?

William Obomsawin: Shelburne Point, yes.

Mali Obomsawin: Pause it for a second. What he's talking about is like the American Revolution, right? And when there started to be all this action in the area around Lake Champlain, where we were currently living at the time, right?

A photo of frozen snowballs on frozen water that looks like it has gradients of blue turning into white.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Lake Champlain is the birthplace of the Abenaki peoples.

Elodie Reed: As we listen to archival recordings, Mali and I are sitting at a desk, surrounded by giant boxes of papers kept by Gordon Day. Day was a non-Indigenous anthropologist known for doing in-depth study of Abenaki peoples. And Mali is looking for something.

Mali Obomsawin: I’m just looking for a specific thing. It’s in the ’70s.

Elodie Reed: The 1970s: when this historical narrative we’ve talked about so far is challenged. For the first time, members of what would become Vermont state-recognized tribes started saying that in fact, whole communities of Abenaki peoples stayed behind in Vermont and New Hampshire after 1800.

Mali Obomsawin: And he starts getting letters from his friend who's an attorney. And the attorney is like, “Please give me information on what's happening in Swanton. Who are these people?” basically.

Elodie Reed: What was happening in Swanton? That’s when we come back.

A new story

Elodie Reed: The story, for centuries, was that Abenaki peoples fled north, across the Canadian border to the reserves in Quebec. Then, from there, they occasionally visited or moved back to more southern outposts.

But in the 1970s, you start hearing that Abenaki peoples actually stayed south of the Canadian border the whole time, secretly living among the white settlers that surrounded them.

This version of history — it took hold thanks in large part to a man named Homer St. Francis.

Homer St. Francis: Today, I'm not in a very good mood because I got a word that they even shot down our ABE grant, because they’re afraid the Abenaki is getting too educated for them. 

Elodie Reed: Here St. Francis is speaking at the since-closed Burlington College in 1989. He’s talking about how the state of Vermont is marginalizing its original inhabitants.

Homer St. Francis: They don't want them to have a high school diploma or a GED or anything else. They want to force them into the slave market. But it's country while they're not going in the slave market for this country. We will survive, we survived for 1,000 years, we will survive again.

A photo of a newspaper from 1996 with "Vermont's Abenakis" at the top of the page. A photo shows a man with a woman standing behind him, holding out a flag.
Homer St. Francis and his daughter, April, in the Burlington Free Press on Jan. 8, 1996.

Elodie Reed: Homer St. Francis is a big reason why we’re talking about Abenaki peoples in Vermont at all. He was really good at saying things that made people take notice.

Homer St. Francis: The people in this so-called state are fed up with bureaucratic bulls***.

Elodie Reed: His name began popping up in newspaper articles in the mid-1970s as part of a group in the Swanton-Highgate area of northwestern Vermont. The group was saying they were Abenaki, that they had always been in Vermont, and that they, therefore, had rights to land, as well as free hunting and fishing.

This was happening at the same time as the nationwide Red Power Movement — Indigenous peoples all over the country were fighting for the federal government to honor treaties promising sovereignty and land and water rights.

NPR Longest Walk coverage:Hundreds of American Indians marched on the Capitol today. They are part of the Longest Walk, a 3,000-mile march from west to east coast. And they are protesting what they call anti-Indian sentiment in Congress.

Elodie Reed: In Vermont, Homer St. Francis didn’t just align the fight for Indigenous sovereignty with a nationwide movement. He also aligned his cause with that of other marginalized people around the state.

Homer St. Francis: I have calls every day from poor people and poor farmers and, and they're right up in arms.

Elodie Reed: Here he is again at that 1989 event.

Homer St. Francis: You got to stay together as a group, strength's in the numbers. So like I said, if I have to I'll start a whole new society here. I'm not afraid to adopt them into the tribe if need be.

Elodie Reed: The, quote, “tribe” St. Francis is talking about had many names, including the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Abenakis of Vermont. We’re going to call it the St. Francis/Sokoki Band for short.

Homer St. Francis acted as the chief of the St.Francis/Sokoki Band for a total of 15 years. Not without controversy. Shortly after this group first became visible in northwestern Vermont, the anthropologist Gordon Day, as well as Swanton residents, cast doubt on St. Francis’ claims that he and hundreds of others were in fact Abenaki.

In a 1976 article in the Rutland Herald, the Swanton police chief said that he, quote, “never even knew there were any Indians in the town until about six months ago.”

Pretty soon, factions emerged within the St. Francis/Sokoki Band itself, leading to splinter groups. One of those splinter groups accused Homer St. Francis of being, among other things, quote, “power hungry.”

Jeff Benay: He was a lot of things, you know, and he was — he was a lot of things. But when Homer was on his game, and he hadn't been drinking, Homer was brilliant.

Elodie Reed: This is Jeff Benay. He is not Indigenous and has never claimed to be. But he got involved with the St. Francis/Sokoki Band in the late 1970s as the director of Indian education for the local school district. He knew Homer St. Francis well.

A photo of two men with their arms around each other.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Jeff Benay, left, pictured at a June Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs Meeting. Here he's receiving the commission's 2023 "Community Service Award" for his decades of work with the groups that would go on to become today's state-recognized tribes, particularly the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi.

He says that some people saw St. Francis as a bully. But, according to Benay, that was all part of St. Francis’ strategy — to raise the profile of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band through acts of civil disobedience, and generating publicity to get into newspapers.

Jeff Benay: He made these statements, and then the major one was that … we’ll be taking over Swanton, and people would be absolutely rips***. “What do you mean, taking over like, our houses?” And you know, it was a wink and a nod, but he said, “Well, sure.” You know, and did people get upset with that? Absolutely.

Elodie Reed: In addition to the threat of taking over Swanton, St. Francis led multiple protests to fight for free fishing licenses. He also encouraged St. Francis/Sokoki Band members to stop using state license plates, and he tried to convince the federal government to leave the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge and pay $100 million in back rent (they did not).

But St. Francis’ forceful advocacy did lead to some gains for his community. A 1986 article in Rutland Herald Vermont Sunday Magazine credits Jeff Benay’s work as the director of Indian education with reducing dropout rates in Franklin County schools.

St. Francis also founded the Abenaki Self-Help Association, which that Sunday Magazine article says it was helping people get their GEDs and distributing food to community members in need.

Something else that the St. Francis/Sokoki Band fought for was official recognition — from both the state and federal governments. They got state recognition every so briefly, in 1976, but it was quickly revoked. As for federal recognition: In 1980, St. Francis sent to the federal government a letter of intent, stating their plans to file a petition for federal acknowledgement as an Indigenous Nation.

Remember that petition, because it’s going to play an important role in this story.

A black and white photo of six people, five of them watching a sixth person signing a piece of paper.
Jeff Benay
Homer St. Francis, left, stands next to Odanak First Nation Chief Walter Watso while Gov. Thomas Salmon signs an executive order recognizing the self-proclaimed Vermont Abenaki in 1976. That order was rescinded shortly after by the next governor, Richard Snelling.

North of the border, leaders of Odanak and Wôlinak First Nations were initially supportive of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band. They even issued resolutions recognizing the band in 1976 and 1977.

And there’s evidence of Odanak and Wôlinak First Nations’ support of the self-proclaimed Vermont Abenaki as recently as 1999.

There are numerous stories, too, about cultural exchange between Odanak First Nation and the self-proclaimed Vermont Abenaki — from language classes to dance groups to basketmaking. Here’s Bonita Langle, a member of one of the present-day Vermont state-recognized tribes, speaking at a press conference this spring.

Bonita Langle: I then went on to join The W'Abenaki Dancers as a teenager.

Elodie Reed: Langle is talking about participating in a group that learned traditional dances from an Odanak teacher in the late 1990s.

Bonita Langle: Where we would meet for monthly rehearsals and a potluck in Burlington, Vermont. We did many performances.

Elodie Reed: And here’s Fred Wiseman, another member of Vermont’s state-recognized tribes, speaking earlier this year to Odanak officials at a meeting of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs.

Fred Wiseman: You can remember the old days, when I was up at Odanak a lot, teaching, helping, working with you. 

Elodie Reed: Wiseman also recalls the time when these relationships began to cool off.

Fred Wiseman: But after 2003, except for occasionally, I did not feel all that welcome. I did not feel all that safe, like we had when we were all working together.   

Chief Rick O’Bomsawin: My community has always been a pretty open community. And you know that.

Fred Wiseman: Maybe I overstated it. Well, not safe, but not welcome anymore.

A photo of three people sitting on a panel, looking to the left, with the person in the middle pointing a finger upwards
Kianna Haskin
Vermont Public File
Odanak First Nation Councilor Jacques Watso, center, speaks at the University of Vermont in 2022.

Elodie Reed: 2003. This year being talked about here was a big pivot point. It’s when Odanak First Nation changed course — and began denouncing non-federally recognized groups claiming to be Abenaki. Like the St. Francis/Sokoki Band in Vermont.

It’s also around this time that Odanak citizens began asking people in the St. Francis/Sokoki Band who their relatives were.

That’s according to Jacques Watso, an elected official at Odanak.

Jacques Watso: When we started asking questions, “Where are you from? Which families?” That's when they raised a lot of red flags and they stopped coming to Odanak. Because they, we were trying to hold them accountable.

Elodie Reed: Essentially, Odanak officials say they realized that members of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band couldn’t produce genealogical documentation proving they were related to other Abenaki citizens — documentation that Odanak requires of its own citizens.

Also: something else happened just 10 months prior that further called into question the St. Francis/Sokoki Band’s legitimacy.

Remember the petition for federal acknowledgement that the St. Francis/Sokoki Band started filing in 1980? Well, two decades later in 2002, they still hadn’t received an official determination. Homer St. Francis, who submitted the first piece of paper for this petition, was no longer alive.

We’ll talk more in Chapter Two about why this process takes so long. But it’s at this time, in 2002, that the St. Francis/Sokoki Band did receive a response to their petition for federal acknowledgement — from the Vermont government. Specifically, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office.

This response came in the form of a 244-page document.

And just a note, we rely on a ton of public reports and documents throughout this series, so I’ve enlisted my Vermont Public colleagues to help narrate. Here’s part of what the conclusion says:

“The invisibility of any tribe from 1790 to 1974 was so complete that historians, anthropologists and census takers were unable to locate it.”

Basically, the Vermont AG’s office could not find evidence of a continuous Abenaki community in Vermont, separate from Odanak and Wôlinak First Nations. It was a public rejection of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band’s version of Abenaki history. And it wouldn’t be the last.

Josh Crane: Reporter Elodie Reed. In Chapter Two, we take a closer look at that public rejection. We also compare the processes for federal and state recognition, and why the Vermont groups failed at one, but ultimately succeeded in the other.

Vince Illuzzi: We had a general rule against having non-Vermont residents come forward.

Josh Crane: That’s coming up next in this three-part series, “Recognized.”

Chapter Two

Note: Our show is made for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio provided here. But we also provide a written version of the episode below.

To learn more about our approach to this story, you can read our editor's note, here.


Josh Crane: From Vermont Public and the NPR Network, this is Brave Little State. I’m Josh Crane.

This is Chapter Two of our special series, “Recognized.” If you haven’t heard Chapter One yet, go back and listen to that first. We pick the story back up at the end of 2002. That’s right before the Vermont Attorney General’s Office published a report that would have major implications for the self-proclaimed Vermont Abenaki.

Also, a note here that this episode covers sensitive material including some slurs. Listen with care. Reporter Elodie Reed takes it from here, when we come back.

Elodie Reed: December 2002. This is 22 years into the process of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band petitioning the U.S. federal government to formally acknowledge them as an Indigenous Nation. And it’s when Vermont formally responds to that petition.

Eve Jacobs-Carnahan was the author of this response. She was a special assistant attorney general at the time. And she’s not Indigenous.

Eve Jacobs-Carnahan: Bill Griffin, the chief assistant attorney general, came to me and said, “Hey, I have a project for you.” We don’t really know anything about federal acknowledgement petitions, but you’re a good researcher, this might be fun (laughter). I don’t think any of us had any idea where it was going to lead.

Elodie Reed: In 2003, Chief Assistant Attorney General Bill Griffin told the newspaper Seven Days that more and more Vermont lawmakers were coming to him, asking about the merits of the state recognizing the self-proclaimed Vermont Abenaki. That’s what he said led to doing the report.

The Vermont AG published this 244-page document in December 2002. And it wasn’t focused on the merits of state recognition. Instead, Eve Jacobs-Carnahan’s research and write-up was geared specifically towards the federal acknowledgement process — like whether the St. Francis/Sokoki Band’s petition did or did not fulfill the requirements outlined by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The report argued: It did not. Here’s a colleague, reading from the conclusion:

“The evidence raises serious questions about the existence of a tribe of Abenakis in Vermont who are a continuation of the historic Abenakis who lived at Missisquoi prior to the American Revolution. The invisibility of any tribe from 1790 to 1974 was so complete that historians, anthropologists and census takers were unable to locate it. No outside observers verify its existence during that time period.”

Elodie Reed: The AG’s office also did not find sufficient proof that Homer St. Francis and the other members of the St.Francis/Sokoki Band had Abenaki ancestry.

This caused quite a ripple around the state. Local scholars who worked with, and wrote about, the self-proclaimed Vermont Abenaki called the report a, quote, “hatchet job”in the press.

One open question was whether the AG’s office had a vested interest in the St. Francis/Sokoki Band failing in their bid for federal recognition.

See — recognizing an Indigenous Nation means making amends and acknowledging rights. It's not the type of thing governments are known to do readily. Bill Griffin, the chief assistant attorney general in Vermont at the time, told Seven Days that legally recognizing the self-proclaimed Vermont Abenaki as an Indigenous Nation would have consequences, and that it would be like, quote, “creating another state” within Vermont.

But the AG’s office also maintained that they wrote the response to the St. Francis/Sokoki Band’s petition with no other motivation apart from participating in the process.

Vermont’s not the only state to submit a response to a petition for federal acknowledgment. But it does seem pretty rare. None of the five most recent decisions on petitions for federal acknowledgement mention input from state attorneys general.

The bid for federal recognition

Elodie Reed: There are more than 1,200 federally recognized Indigenous Nations in the U.S. and Canada. Both countries have different processes in place, but broadly, what they are recognizing is that these Indigenous Nations have long and continuous relationships with their homelands. And they have inherent rights, as well as a political relationship with colonial governments. That political relationship is — or is supposed to be — government-to-government.

In other words: Indigenous Nations are self-governing, sovereign entities.

Matthew Fletcher: Sovereignty doesn't mean a whole lot if outsiders don't acknowledge it.

Elodie Reed: This is Matthew Fletcher, professor of law and American culture at the University of Michigan. He’s a citizen of the federally recognized Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. One of his areas of expertise is U.S. federal Indian law.

Matthew Fletcher: Tribes that are not federally acknowledged, they certainly can assert sovereignty over their own citizens and probably aspects of their own, of their lands. But a lot of that is kind of meaningless unless the United States government acknowledges that sovereignty, and if the United States does, then state governments have to as well.

Elodie Reed: Indigenous Nations that are federally recognized govern their own citizens — and do things like make and enforce laws and create their own taxes. They also become eligible for certain funding and programs guaranteed in exchange for the land and resources these Indigenous Nations gave up to the U.S.

Matthew Fletcher: That duty of protection, that trust responsibility, requires the United States to guarantee health, housing, law enforcement, public safety, education, all sorts of things, everything that a government does. And if you don't have federal acknowledgement, the United States government will not provide those services.

Elodie Reed: So, that’s the sort of recognition the 1,200-member St. Francis/Sokoki Band was looking for starting in the 1980s. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, then assessed the application for nearly three decades.

This timeline is actually not unusual. The federal recognition process is infamously arduous.

The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana, for instance, spent nearly 42 years in the BIA process before getting federal recognition through an act of U.S. Congress in late 2019.

And some long-standing communities, who have at times had treaties with the U.S. government, are still not recognized — like the Chinook Indian Nation in Washington, which has been seeking federal recognition for 120 years.

A photo of people drumming outside a building on a rainy day.
Ted S. Warren
Associated Press File
Jon George, tribal council secretary for the confederated tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon, dances in a drum circle, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, outside the federal courthouse in Tacoma, Wash., before a hearing in U.S. District Court to hear oral arguments on cross-claims for summary judgment in a lawsuit brought by Chinook Indian Nation tribes against the Department of the Interior as they continue their efforts to regain federal recognition.

Matthew Fletcher: The factors that you need to fulfill the actual tests that the United States puts forward are unbelievably expensive, you have to hire expert witnesses, you have to dredge up every conceivable document, going back as far as possible for the history of the tribe.

Elodie Reed: Matthew Fletcher calls the BIA federal acknowledgment process, quote, “relentlessly bureaucratic” and “Kafkaesque.”

Matthew Fletcher: It's ridiculous, that level of unfair scrutiny that these bureaucrats put forth on these tribes.

Elodie Reed: But Dan Lewerenz says the process isn’t supposed to be easy. He’s also a professor with expertise in U.S. federal Indian law.

Dan Lewerenz: Federal acknowledgement is a very meaningful and solemn thing. It is saying that the United States government is going to have a relationship, a government-to-government relationship, with another entity.

Elodie Reed: Lewerenz is a citizen of the federally-recognized Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and currently teaches at the University of North Dakota. Between 2015 and 2017, he actually worked for the U.S. Department of Interior, providing legal advice to the BIA office that reviews petitions for federal acknowledgement.

Dan Lewerenz: The people at Interior would say that part of their job is – part of their job is to make sure that groups who should be acknowledged are, but part of their job is to make sure that groups that shouldn't be acknowledged aren't.

Elodie Reed: When the BIA finally released its proposed finding in 2005 and its final decision in 2007, both reports said no — the St. Francis/Sokoki Band did not have enough evidence to make its case.

The BIA’s conclusions mirrored what the Vermont Attorney General’s Office had written several years earlier in the state’s response. Both essentially say: There’s just no proof that the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Abenakis of Vermont existed prior to the 1970s. And there’s just not enough evidence that group members are descended from Abenaki ancestors.

On that last note, the BIA pointed out that less than 1% of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band’s 1,200 members could demonstrate descent from an Abenaki ancestor or, quote, “any other historical Indian tribe.” For the eight members whom the BIA could trace to an Abenaki ancestor, they did so through historical lists that Odanak First Nation has kept of its citizens.

The BIA described the St.Francis/Sokoki Band as, quote:

“A collection of individuals of claimed but mostly undemonstrated Indian ancestry with little or no social or historical connection with each other before the early 1970s.”

Therefore, the BIA determined, the band should not get the federal benefits set aside for this land’s original, Indigenous peoples.

In response to the BIA’s findings, the then-leader of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band, April Rushlow Merrill, pointed out that the group did at least satisfy three of seven BIA criteria.

Both of the legal experts I talked to, Matthew Fletcher and Dan Lewerenz, agree that it’s harder for Indigenous peoples in the eastern part of the United States than it is for those in the western U.S. to produce the required documentation for federal recognition. That’s because colonizing countries like England, France and the Netherlands didn’t have the same formalized agreements with eastern Indigenous peoples that the United States later made with western Indigenous peoples.

Fletcher says this makes the paper trail a lot harder to follow.

Matthew Fletcher: For tribes that are in the, especially in the original 13 colonies, original 13 states, they don't have that track record, the United States usually just ignored them.

A photo of a sign by a roadway. A truck is on the roadway, and the sign has a shape like an arrowhead, and reads: "Mashpee: Land of the Wampanoag Incorporated 1870"
Steven Senne
Associated Press File
In this June 25, 2018, photo, a wooden sign advises motorists of the location of Mashpee Wampanoag tribal lands in Massachusetts. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is among the Indigenous Nations in the eastern U.S. to succeed in gaining federal recognition.

Elodie Reed: But Lewerenz says there are plenty of eastern Indigenous Nations who have managed to produce enough documentation to be federally acknowledged, even if their communities had longer to contend with the violence, displacement, assimilation and family separation enacted by the settlers surrounding them.

Dan Lewerenz: So the most recent administrative acknowledgement was Pamunkey in 2016 — which is Virginia — before that was Shinnecock in New York in 2010. Before that, Mashpee in Massachusetts in 2007. And you have other northeastern tribes, Mohegan from Connecticut, the Wampanoag of Gay Head, which is now Aquinnah in Massachusetts, Narragansetts in Rhode Island.

Elodie Reed: And compared to the St. Francis/Sokoki Band’s application, which could only demonstrate that less than 1% of their membership descended from Abenaki ancestors, those eastern, acknowledged Indigenous Nations could show all or nearly all of their membership descended from a historical Indigenous community.

In the case of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band’s petition for federal acknowledgement — what stands out to me, from both the federal and Vermont governments’ responses, is that neither deny there were Abenaki peoples present in the state of Vermont between the turn of the 19th century and the 1970s. In fact, they confirm — through newspaper articles, historical journals and notes from anthropologist Gordon Day — that Abenaki peoples were visible here at various times.

Instead, what the BIA and the Vermont Attorney General’s Office claim is that they couldn’t find similar documentation showing there were distinct Abenaki peoples in Vermont, separate from Odanak and Wôlinak First Nations. At least, not from the materials submitted in the St. Francis/Sokoki Band’s petition for federal acknowledgement.

A theory takes hold

Elodie Reed: There is a theory out there about how that could have been — how there could have been a distinct Abenaki community in Vermont for so long without leaving behind a paper trail. I tried to trace this theory back. And I ended up at the research of two men.

First up: A man named John Moody. He acted as the St. Francis/Sokoki Band’s researcher for their petition for federal acknowledgement. And, by the way, I asked Moody via email whether he claims to be Abenaki. He declined to answer this question.

You’ll remember from Chapter One that, for a long time, the story was that by 1800 or so, Abenaki peoples fled Vermont and other southern parts of their territory to survive the devastation of colonization, and moved north to settle in Canada.

But John Moody theorized that some Abenaki peoples never left Vermont. Instead, he argued they avoided persecution by living in secrecy.

Moody shared his theory in a 1980 interview with the Burlington Free Press.

A photo of a newspaper article with the headline: "Abenakis led secretive life to survey -- study"
This 1980 Burlington Free Press article shares the theory of John Moody, the St. Francis/Sokoki Band's researcher for their petition for federal acknowledgement.

According to the article, Moody arrived at this theory by taping oral histories with members of the St.Francis/Sokoki Band. He said that people shared, quote, “traditional Indian skills,” like the use of herbs that, quote, “were identical to those of the Abenakis” in Odanak. Moody would not share these oral histories when I asked.

Moody also said in that article that he looked through government and church records. He concluded there were names of Abenaki peoples who were supposed to have left Vermont for the Canadian reserves by 1800, but were missing from records in Canada.

Moody’s theory that some Abenaki peoples stayed in Vermont and lived in secrecy took hold. The reports published by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office and the Bureau of Indian Affairs document how Moody influenced late-20th century historians and the books they wrote about Abenaki peoples.

The BIA, for its part, called Moody’s work, quote, “highly speculative and not reliable.”

I asked John Moody to share documentation confirming his research. He declined, and he also did not want to speak on the record.

The question now arises: Why would Abenaki peoples hide in Vermont for close to two centuries?

According to Matthew Fletcher, the University of Michigan law professor, colonization put massive pressure on Indigenous communities to assimilate.

Matthew Fletcher: The federal government effectively prohibited many tribal religions. There are a lot of people who would, you know, refuse to practice their religion because of fear of state or federal prosecution.

Elodie Reed: But in this state, there’s another explanation people have often pointed to. It has to do with something from the 1920s and ’30s called the Eugenics Survey of Vermont.

Vince Illuzzi: Folks came forward and said, “We were told by our grandparents never to acknowledge, never to admit, that we were Abenaki or had Indian heritage,” for fear of the consequences.

Don Stevens: I mean, my grandmother was on the survey. She changed her name three times because she was trying to avert the survey. And she died in the '90s. I mean, you know, it’s not that far away. So there’s still a lot of people that don’t want to be on a list, if you know what I mean.

Elodie Reed: The Eugenics Survey of Vermont was a study that lasted from 1925 to 1936. It was organized by a University of Vermont zoology professor, Henry Perkins. According to a history from UVM itself, the study aimed to reduce growth in the population of Vermont’s, quote, “social problem group.” Perkins also advocated heavily for a state sterilization law that went into effect in 1931.

A photo of a newspaper page with a large photo of a man in glasses. Laid across his photo is the headline: The Perkins Solution: A half century ago, UVM's Henry Perkins proposed to cleanse the Vermont gene pool by sterilizing those he considered unfit.
The Rutland Herald Vermont Sunday Magazine's feature about the Eugenics Survey of Vermont, published in 1995. Four years earlier, a historian named Kevin Dann wrote an article linking the survey to Abenaki peoples in Vermont.

Eugenics, broadly speaking, was a theory that some people are better than others, and that you should segregate or sterilize the less desirable parts of the population. It is an awful, pseudoscientific theory, and it’s something that shaped public policy in Vermont throughout the 20th century.

Mercedes de Guardiola: It would probably be easier to list the number of Vermont leaders that were against it than those who were for it.

Elodie Reed: This is Mercedes de Guardiola, a historian who just published a new book titled Vermont for the Vermonters: A History of Eugenics in the Green Mountain State. She declined to be interviewed for this story, but she spoke with Vermont Public in 2021, and that’s the tape you’re hearing.

Mercedes de Guardiola: It's so tied into policies behind social welfare, thinking behind how you provide aid to certain members of the community, how you treat people in institutions.

Elodie Reed: The Eugenics Survey lasted from the 1920s to the 1930s, but it wasn’t until 1991 that Kevin Dann wrote an article linking the survey to Abenaki peoples in Vermont.

Dann is a non-Indigenous historian, and contemporary of John Moody; Remember, he’s the researcher who said that Abenaki peoples were living in Vermont in secret to avoid persecution. We know from public documents that Dann and Moody were corresponding with one another and sharing ideas.

Ideas like John Moody saying that Abenaki peoples who remained in Vermont post-1800 were living as, quote, “gypsies.”

“Gypsy” is now seen as a pejorative term for Romani people. We’re using it here because it appears in the documents we’re citing.

And Kevin Dann appears to have taken John Moody’s claim about, quote, “gypsies” one step further. In his 1991 article, Dann wrote that among the families studied in the Eugenics Survey of Vermont for their, quote, “degeneracy,” there were the, quote, “gypsies.” And Dann said they were “primarily of Abenaki and French-Canadian ancestry.”

Dann did not cite a source for this conclusion in his article. But regardless, this narrative caught on: that Abenaki peoples were studied and targeted by the Eugenics Survey of Vermont. It was repeated and alluded to in newspaper articles, books and — more recently — in 2019 and 2021 by the University of Vermont and the Vermont Legislature, in public apologies for the impact of the eugenics survey and related state policies.

And even Vermont Public has been among the news outlets to continue repeating this narrative, on this podcast and in other stories.

Mikaela Lefrak: The Abenaki people were targets of the eugenics movement.

Mitch Wertlieb:For the original vermonters, the Abenaki, eugenics and racial prejudice led to a life lived in the shadows, where their ancestry was hidden instead of celebrated.

Brave Little State:This was a very dark chapter in Vermont’s history. It involved coerced sterilization of the Abenaki — also French Canadians, poor people, disabled people. 

Elodie Reed: It turns out the truth about Abenaki peoples and the Eugenics Survey is far less certain. I called up Kevin Dann to discuss the origins of his 1991 article. And just a heads up, the audio quality isn’t great here.

Elodie Reed: Can you just tell me how you got on this path to going through the records and researching the eugenics survey?

Kevin Dann: It was the laundry building for the state hospital that had been turned into the records center.

Elodie Reed: Dann went through these cardboard boxes at the Waterbury complex that now houses a bunch of state offices.

Kevin Dann: And so it had all that atmosphere of, you know, real darkness about it.

Elodie Reed: Among the records, Dann said he recognized names of Abenaki families. But those family names weren’t from the St. Francis/Sokoki Band. They were names that Dann recognized from anthropologist Gordon Day, who studied Odanak First Nation.

But that distinction — that the names were related to Odanak — did not make it into the public presentation of Dann’s findings.

Kevin Dann: All of a sudden it became a, a, you know, Homer St. Francis standing there in front of journalists and waving some— I don't even think I published anything at that point, it might have been a manuscript thing and said, “Look, there was this Abenaki holocaust.” I mean, that blew my mind. 

I felt very much that, you know, if I'd seen any evidence of anything like what they were claiming, if I, if there had been anything like that, I would have found some evidence of it. And I didn't.

Elodie Reed: What Kevin Dann told me — it calls into question the whole theory that the eugenics survey targeted a distinct community of Abenaki peoples in Vermont. It does not mean that people associated with the St.Francis/Sokoki Band and the state-recognized tribes today weren’t also impacted by eugenics. There is public documentation showing ancestors of the self-proclaimed Vermont Abenaki were studied in the Eugenics Survey of Vermont.

And that public documentation does refer to some of those ancestors as, quote, “Indian.”

What there doesn’t appear to be outright evidence for, however, is that these ancestors were targeted because they were Abenaki.

That’s what the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Vermont Attorney General’s Office also concluded from the materials provided as part of the St.Francis/Sokoki Band’s petition for federal acknowledgement.

And Odanak First Nation officials say this, too.

A photo of the back of a woman, whose hair is in a scrunchy, walking past homes with snowy yards.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Suzie O'Bomsawin walks through Odanak's reserve in January. She says while there are traumas her community has experienced, targeting by eugenics policies has not been among them.

Suzie O’Bomsawin: We never said nobody from those groups went through those traumas. Maybe they went through those traumas, but not because they were Abenaki.

Elodie Reed: Suzie O’Bomsawin from Odanak First Nation says that Abenaki peoples being targeted by eugenics policies is just not something Odanak citizens ever heard about from their relatives visiting and living in Vermont.

Suzie O’Bomsawin: They never said anything related to eugenic practice. Like, not even one person.

Elodie Reed: O’Bomsawin says there are traumas that Odanak First Nation has experienced, like the traumas of residential schools. But:

Suzie O’Bomsawin: There are traumas that we didn't have. We don't need more. 

We never lived in hiding. So this is not something I would like the next generation to read about. This is not what happened. Our ancestor did not hide.

Elodie Reed: So if some families of the self-proclaimed Vermont Abenaki were swept up in the eugenics movement, but not because they were Abenaki, then why? Why could they have been targeted?

Richard Witting: So I got aggregate data, essentially, minus the redacted names.

Elodie Reed: UVM history graduate student Richard Witting has been searching for some answers. Witting is not Indigenous. He’s been analyzing certificates issued under Vermont’s 1931 sterilization law, which he requested from the Vermont State Archives.

A photo of a man sitting in a lecture hall with brick walls.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Richard Witting is a University of Vermont graduate student researching eugenics records in Vermont. He sits for a portrait in UVM's Williams Hall, the same building where he says the organizer of the Eugenics Survey of Vermont, Henry Perkins, once taught.

Elodie Reed: There are 256 known sterilization records in Vermont. And from that data, Witting says he found that sterilization was largely targeting people experiencing poverty. Also among those sterilized were young people who were institutionalized, and older, low-income women who had multiple children.

Witting says to a smaller degree, sterilization impacted immigrants, people with mental or physical disabilities, or mental illness.

He says he found no use of Vermont’s 1931 sterilization law that would suggest it was specifically targeting Abenaki or Indigenous peoples.

Witting also gained access to a handful of records with names included on them. This made it possible to explore the family histories of some of those who were sterilized.

Richard Witting: When we keep all of the information sort of wrapped up, tucked away, we're kind of ashamed of it, we won't look at it, we won’t examine the details, we won't put names to the faces, then it kind of stays amorphous. And it can be as big or small, or like, used how we want it, it becomes kind of like, I guess a myth or a story that we can, we can interpret to say something about who we are now or who we were then.

Elodie Reed: Witting's research is still unpublished, but he's already taken steps to try and correct the record. For instance, he joined Odanak citizens in the parking lot of the Ethan Allen Homestead Museum on that chilly day last spring. He considers himself an ally.

Richard Witting: I do. Yeah. As I learned about Abenaki history, I got to know the First Nations of Odanak and Wôlinak and their history and how Vermont sort of clipped them out in their story and said, has sort of marginalized them, really. This work I did, I tried to be objective. And if I did find something else, I would say some, you know, that I found something else in it. But I don't see documentation that supports the claims of the state-recognized tribes around their history around eugenics.

Elodie Reed: For now, Witting's research is more confirmation of what Odanak First Nation has said, as well as findings from the Vermont Attorney General’s Office and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Just to recap: the self-proclaimed Vermont Abenaki started seeking federal recognition in 1980. And there were a number of setbacks along the way — like the report from the Vermont AG’s office in 2002, and a few years later, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs officially rejected their petition. But the self-proclaimed Vermont Abenaki kept pushing — now shifting their focus to state recognition. And they found support from a really important group: state lawmakers.

We’ll continue down the road to state recognition after the break.

New route: The road to state recognition

Elodie Reed: After the St. Francis/Sokoki Band’s quest for federal recognition ended, the group shifted focus to state recognition. State recognition isn’t highly studied, but it’s a growing phenomenon. That’s according to a survey of state-recognized tribes published in the Santa Clara Law Review in 2008.

And it concludes that state recognition can be a, quote, “complement and supplement to the federal recognition process.” As a reminder: Scholars like Matthew Fletcher are critical of how arduous the federal recognition process is.

Matthew Fletcher: It's ridiculous, that level of unfair scrutiny that these bureaucrats put forth on these tribes.

Elodie Reed: And by the mid-2000s, state lawmakers, as well as then-Governor Jim Douglas, were growing receptive to the idea of state recognition in Vermont.With federal recognition off the table, the self-proclaimed Vermont Abenaki would not have rights bestowed upon Indigenous Nations,like the ability to reclaim ancestral homelands from the government.

In 2006, the Vermont Legislature passed a bill recognizing Abenaki peoples as a minority in Vermont. But this still precluded the self-proclaimed Vermont Abenaki from selling arts and crafts under the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

To do that, Vermont would need a mechanism to specifically recognize individual groups as Native American.

This is when you see the emergence of the four organizations that you might recognize as today’s Vermont state-recognized tribes — the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, the Koasek Traditional Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation, and the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuck Abenaki Nation. Or, as we’ll call them for short: Missisquoi, Elnu, Koasek and Nulhegan.

Missisquoi, the largest of the four, is pretty much the present-day version of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band, just under a different name. The other three are connected through family ties, or by joining forces politically in the campaign for recognition. Some folks even moved from one group to another.

A photo of three people standing in a room.
Toby Talbot
Associated Press File
Chief Don Stevens, of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, center, and Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan, of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, left, listen to Sen. Vince Illuzzi on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011, in Montpelier, Vt. The groups that would go on to become Vermont's state-recognized tribes asked the Legislature to create a process with looser requirements than federal recognition. The Legislature obliged.

Between 2007 and 2010, the four groups went back and forth with the Vermont Legislature over the process for recognizing groups as Native American tribes in Vermont. They agreed on a method that had some inherent conflicts of interest. For one, the groups applying for recognition could give input on the people who would review their applications. Among the eventual reviewers was a member of one of the groups seeking state recognition — though he didn’t review his own group’s application.

Mississquoi, Elnu, Koasek and Nulhegan also asked the Vermont Legislature that some of the federal recognition criteria not be included in the state recognition process. The Legislature obliged.

For starters, the groups didn’t want genealogy to be a requirement. Some said they feared their personal information would be exploited, citing previous eugenics policies in Vermont. And so state lawmakers allowed them to use, quote, “other methods” to trace their membership to a shared “kinship group.”

The groups also didn’t think they should be asked to document their community’s history into the distant past. And the Vermont Legislature was OK with that, only asking that groups have a “connection with” historic Native American tribes in Vermont, rather than needing to be descended from them.

Lastly, the groups specifically didn’t want Odanak First Nation citizens’ involvement in Vermont’s process. Remember that a few years prior, Odanak’s government had denounced groups like theirs.

And so the Vermont Senate added a residency requirement for those who testified during the recognition process in 2011 and 2012.

This effectively excluded most Odanak perspectives — like Odanak citizen and Albany, New York resident Denise Watso, who opposed state recognition. She said self-proclaimed Vermont Abenaki groups were misrepresenting facts.

Denise Watso: Vermont put up the stockade walls, right, keeping the Abenaki people out because they had one agenda — Senator Illuzzi was to recognize these groups.

Elodie Reed: The person Watso is referring to is Vince Illuzzi. He was the chair of the state Senate committee that oversaw the state recognition process. Today, he’s the Essex County state’s attorney. Illuzzi is not Indigenous.

A photo of a man with his glasses on his forehead and his hand over his mouth.
Toby Talbot
Associated Press File
Former state senator and current Essex County State's Attorney Vince Illuzzi listens in the Senate in Montpelier, Vt. on April 27, 2012.

I asked him about this ban on non-resident testimony.

Vince Illuzzi: Although we had a general rule against having non-Vermont residents come forward, we did give them an opportunity to, to email and to write, and otherwise send us information.

Elodie Reed: And Watso, in Albany, says she did do this. Letters, emails, press releases, phone calls to lawmakers, even a couple in-person visits to Vermont.


Denise Watso: We could not speak.

Vince Illuzzi: We found that the in-person meetings had been not conducive to a positive discussion, a positive resolution.

Elodie Reed: The House committee hearings don’t appear to have had a similar residency requirement at that time — but no witnesses affiliated with Odanak are listed in those hearing records. Illuzzi told me he thought lawmakers did set aside a day for out-of-state residents to testify, but records don’t show any such testimony. They show only a few people affiliated with Odanak testified during the hearings for the state recognition bills — and they were all Vermont residents.

Like Richard Bernier, who lives in Orleans County.

Richard Bernier: I live in Coventry, Vermont. I'm just a young man. 

Elodie Reed: Bernier is 84 years old.

Richard Bernier: I'm an Abenaki Indian, and I belong to the Turtle Clan.

Elodie Reed: I visited him at his home on a snowy morning — he welcomed me inside and offered me his slippers, then showed me some family photos.

Richard Bernier: My mother is right there. 

Elodie Reed: What was her—

Richard Bernier: But my mom was a hellraiser, OK, and anyway, and her sister brought me up. She took me when I was a year and a half old. But these are all Abenakis. All from Odanak.

Elodie Reed: Odanak?

Richard Bernier: Yeah. I've done a little research too in my time. I did a lot of it. And I know just about everyone that's Abenaki here. 

I don’t wanna hurt these other people, I really don’t. They gotta live, too, OK? But why can’t they be fair with the “real” people?

A photo of an older man looking straight into the camera.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Richard "Skip" Bernier is a citizen of Odanak First Nation and lives in Vermont's Orleans County. He was one of just a few people affiliated with Odanak allowed to testify on Vermont's state recognition legislation.

Elodie Reed: By, quote, “real” people, Bernier means people who are enrolled with a federally recognized Indigenous Nation.

When Bernier traveled to the Vermont Legislature to testify against state recognition for the self-proclaimed Vermont Abenaki groups, he says he told lawmakers there was something very wrong going on — and that what went wrong could be traced back decades.

Richard Bernier: Homer St. Francis many years ago started this.

Elodie Reed: This is Bernier testifying in front of a state Senate committee in 2011.

Richard Bernier: That's not an Abenaki tribe. Far from it. Far from being an Abenaki tribe. Here's the other thing. You know, being an Abenaki or an American Indian, you're born into it. Just because they have powwows and gatherings and what have you, that don't make them Abenakis. You're born into it. You're raised in it. OK?

Elodie Reed: Also at the hearings — Jeff Benay. We introduced Benay in Chapter One. He isn’t Indigenous himself. But he has worked as the Director of Indian Education in Franklin County schools for decades. And he testified in 2011 that Abenaki students were getting taunted in school because they weren’t recognized by the state.

Jeff Benay: And all I would say: The time has come for us to put this bickering aside and let's do what is morally the right thing to do. This is a moral imperative, in 2011, we could not go another year. 

Elodie Reed: I want to pause here and acknowledge that, for the most part, we are relying on archival or public meeting tape to represent the viewpoints of the groups who would go on to become Vermont’s state-recognized tribes.

The reason for that is folks from these groups have been reluctant to speak with me on the record. This has been the case ever since the spring of 2022. That’s when Vermont Public started reporting on Odanak’s denunciation of the groups here.

The Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs did provide me with the four applications that would go on to be approved for state recognition, with some names redacted. When they were submitted a little over a decade ago, the applications listed 43 people belonging to Elnu, 60 to Koasek, 260 to Nulhegan and 2,248 to Missisquoi.

As for what these applications contained: They relied heavily on stories unsupported by documentation that loosely connected their members to people publicly identified as Indigenous.

For example: The Nulhegan application for state recognition says that the ancestors of Chief Don Stevens, the Phillips family, are, quote, “believed” to be descended from a Native American “Chief Philip.” That Chief Philip is visible in public records as an Abenaki man from Odanak who signed a land deed in the late 1700s. In their application, the Nulhegan group says it considers this land deed its founding document.

We asked Don Stevens for evidence connecting him to Chief Philip. He declined to record an interview. He did respond through a public relations firm and wrote in an email, in part, quote:

“We stand by our family’s Native American history and the information submitted to the State of Vermont in the recognition process. Native cultures pass traditions, oral history, and ancestral information from generation to generation, which must be considered along with European documentation to get a complete genealogical picture.”

He goes on to reference documentation in records from the Eugenics Survey of Vermont, which identify the Phillips family as, quote, “Indian.”

A photo of a man in a headdress handing a wooden pipe to a man in a suit and tie, with another man wearing a sash looking on.
Toby Talbot
Associated Press File
Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan, of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, left, gives a pipe to Gov. Peter Shumlin at the Statehouse, Friday, April 22, 2011. That's the day the governor signed bills recognizing Elnu and the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuck Abenaki Nation.

The Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs approved the applications for four groups applying to become state-recognized. With the commission’s recommendations, state lawmakers voted to make that recognition official.

In 2011, Elnu and Nulhegan became formally state-recognized as Abenaki tribes. In 2012, Koasek and Missisquoi did, too.

Peter Shumlin: And I’m honored to sign into law the official recognition of your tribes that you have fought and sought for, for so long. Congratulations. 

Elodie Reed: Vermont’s new state-recognized tribes celebrated at the Statehouse.

(Drumming and singing) 

Elodie Reed: And Nulhegan Chief Don Stevens spoke to Vermont Public about the victory.

Don Stevens: We have here affected the next seven generations of our children. I mean, they can be proud, hold their head up high. They can be eligible for scholarships in the future. We have, now, a working relationship, an official, legal working relationship with the state of Vermont.

Elodie Reed: The four state-recognized tribes would go on to get free hunting and fishing licenses, as well as certain property tax exemptions from the state. And they now qualified for certain federal benefits. Such as: the ability to label arts and crafts as “Indian produced.”

Elnu, Koasek, Missisquoi and Nulhegan are now among 60-plus entities recognized by about a dozen states as Native American. Most of them are not federally recognized.

Former Senator Vince Illuzzi calls Vermont’s state recognition process among his proudest legislative achievements.

Vince Illuzzi: I don't think these people were coming forward for state recognition for any reason other than that they were of Abenaki descent and wanted to preserve their culture.

A photo of people sitting in a large circle and drumming together.
Toby Talbot
Associated Press File
Members of Vermont's state-recognized tribes perform a drum circle at the Statehouse on Monday, May 7, 2012 in Montpelier, Vt. That's the day Gov. Peter Shumlin signed legislation recognizing the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi and the Koasek Traditional Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation.

Elodie Reed: You can hear in Illuzzi’s voice how settled state recognition might have felt back then. To many, it still feels that way now. But for Odanak and Wôlinak First Nations, it doesn’t feel settled — at all.

In fact, just this summer, they called on, quote, “relevant authorities” to investigate Vermont’s state-recognition process.

Josh Crane: Reporter Elodie Reed. In Chapter Three, we go over the ways this dispute is still unfolding today, and how it has forced some Vermonters to rethink the way they see themselves and their family.

Chawna Cota: I don't think that my family members were lying. … I believe that they thought that it was true. They were just caught up in it. 

Josh Crane: That’s coming up next, in this three-part series “Recognized.” The third and final chapter of this story is available right now.

Chapter Three

Note: Our show is made for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio provided here. But we also provide a written version of the episode below.

To learn more about our approach to this story, you can read our editor's note, here.


Josh Crane: From Vermont Public and the NPR Network, this is Brave Little State. I’m Josh Crane.

And this is Chapter Three of our special series, “Recognized.” If you haven’t heard Chapters One and Two yet, you should go back and listen to those first.

In this chapter, we’ll pick up where we left off — after Vermont created its own state recognition process and officially recognized four Vermont groups as Abenaki tribes. It was a process that all but excluded Odanak and Wôlinak, the only two federally recognized Western Abenaki Nations. And more than a decade later, they still have something to say about it.

A quick heads up that this episode covers sensitive material. Listen with care.

Reporter Elodie Reed takes it from here, when we come back.

What it means to be Indigenous

Elodie Reed: In July, Odanak and Wôlinak First Nations issued a joint press release. The two governments represent 3,000 or so citizens. And those governments said, in light of a new, peer-reviewed article, that the “relevant authorities” should investigate Vermont’s state recognition process. And then, take appropriate action.

That peer-reviewed article was published in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal by French-Canadian scholar Darryl Leroux. Leroux studied the core families in the group that preceded Vermont’s state-recognized tribes.

And through genealogical analysis, he concluded that most of those families do not have Abenaki ancestry.

A photo of a white man in blue glasses in a suit and shirt, with the ocean and blue sky in the background
Darryl Leroux recently published a paper titled "State Recognition and the Dangers of Race Shifting" in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal.

Vermont’s four state-recognized tribes — Elnu, Koasek, Missisquoi and Nulhegan — responded to Leroux’s paper. Their statement said, in part, that the sources Leroux chose to use for his research were shaped by, quote, “Indigenous groups that hold a federal-level recognition status and are couched in terms of asserting control, exerting power, and eliminating competition.”

It’s a veiled but unmistakable reference to Odanak and Wôlinak First Nations. Darryl Leroux, the author, told me he started this research and got independent funding for it before he was ever in touch with anyone at these First Nations.

But it is true — that to be a citizen, Odanak and Wôlinak do require genealogical documentation.

That said, the more we reported this story out, we learned that genealogy is just one part of how Indigenous Nations determine citizenship.

Kim TallBear: This is not about individual ancestry. And when it moves from being about a people, a Nation, a collective and defending their land and place-based rights, to defending your own individual rights based on some ancestral claim, that's, that's a total problem.

Elodie Reed: Meet Kim TallBear. She’s a professor at the University of Alberta and a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, a federally recognized tribe. And she’s the author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Her name often pops up when discussing claims of belonging to an Indigenous Nation.

TallBear thinks whether or not one person has Indigenous ancestors is relevant, but not the only important consideration.

A photo of a woman speaking at a microphone.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Kim TallBear is a professor at the University of Alberta, a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, and the author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. She's speaking here at the University of Vermont on April 28, 2023.

Kim TallBear: We're really dealing with living communities and proving relationships to living people. … I think if, if what you are proving connection to is only in the archive or in the grave, that's not what we do. We show connection to living communities.

If it's farther away than your grandparents, it's virtually never going to happen. You know, there have to be people that remember you, that know you, that remember your parents, that know your family, that can slot you back into the history and the dynamics and the social networks of that community.

Elodie Reed: TallBear says the role of Indigenous Nations — those living communities of citizens — is to collectively fight for the rights they’re owed by colonial entities. Remember: Indigenous Nations are supposed to have government-to-government relationships with countries like the U.S. and Canada. They are political bodies.

And TallBear thinks any state recognition process gets in the way of that. Vermont’s process, for instance, requires state-recognized groups to sign away their rights to land claims.

Kim TallBear: I don't think states should be in the business of recognition. Our historical agreements, and treaties are not with states, states are direct competitors to tribes and tribal sovereignty.

Elodie Reed: Part of what tribal sovereignty means is that Indigenous Nations get to set their own criteria for who can belong as a citizen. And TallBear stresses that belonging is not something an individual can claim without input from that Indigenous Nation.

Kim TallBear: Because it is absolutely not a private matter. And that is something I think is hard for settler institutions to understand because they're thinking in terms of gender and ethnicity.

Chief Rick O’Bomsawin: This is a question that's asked on every Native reservation across the friggin’ United States and Canada. 

Elodie Reed: This is the chief of Odanak First Nation, Rick O’Bomsawin, speaking at a public meeting. He says it’s very normal for Indigenous peoples to ask about each others’ families and ancestry to establish their connection to one another.

Chief Rick O’Bomsawin: I moved back to my community after 30 years, the first thing an elder said to me was, “Who’s your father, who's your mother?” I can date my family, my personal family back in my community for over 300 years. All of us can. That's the question we ask.  

We are all looking for the same thing. We're looking for our true history, who we are, our real being. We want to know if we have, if we truly have family members here in the United States, we want to bring yous home. We want to welcome our families.

Elodie Reed: Vermont state-recognized tribes said in a statement over the summer, quote, “to whatever generational degree removed we may be, we are still connected.”

Also in that statement, state-recognized tribes pointed out that Indigenous Nations who are federally recognized met criteria, quote, “developed by Euro-American governmental recognition structures.”

In other words, the state-recognized tribes are saying that federally recognized Indigenous Nations are using colonial standards to define who belongs to their communities. And that those criteria are too exclusive.

A photo of a man in a purple shirt seen through the shoulders of other people. The group is sitting in folding chairs outside on green grass.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Rich Holschuh, seen here running the June 2023 meeting of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs. When he was elected to commission chair in September 2022, a fellow commissioner, Beverly Little Thunder, asked Holschuh whether he had Indigenous heritage. Holschuh said he did, though "not within three generations."

State-recognized tribes say they are being, quote, “unfairly scrutinized.”

An example of this played out at a meeting of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs last year. It was soon after that commission’s current chair, Rich Holschuh, was nominated for that position.

Beverly Little Thunder: Last year, we had a — we had a Zoom meeting. And you were directly asked if you were Indigenous, and you said that you were not Indigenous?

Rich Holschuh: I am of Indigenous heritage. I am not by the definition that was offered that day.

Elodie Reed: That’s Beverly Little Thunder, a former member of the commission, talking to Holschuh. Little Thunder later resigned from the commission, she says, in part because of this exchange.

At the time, one of the guidelines for the commission was that the chair should be of Indigenous heritage.

Beverly Little Thunder: I'm just bringing it up because it was handed out and it was approved in our last meeting.

Rich Holschuh: I do solemnly affirm that I am of Indigenous heritage, it is not within three generations, and those were my exact words at that time.

Elodie Reed: In other words, even though Holschuh says he does have Indigenous ancestors, neither his parents nor his grandparents have ever been enrolled with a federally recognized Indigenous Nation. That’s a requirement for belonging to Odanak First Nation. And it’s fairly similar to a requirement for belonging to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, the federally recognized Indigenous Nation where Beverly Little Thunder is enrolled.

But remember, Vermont’s state recognition law doesn’t require federal-level criteria for the membership of state-recognized tribes. And that’s created space for relative newcomers.

Rich Holschuh: I was raising, raising a family, trying to work —  late in life, when all of those things began to fall apart for me. 

Elodie Reed: Rich Holschuh again. He says he joined Elnu in the years after it became state recognized.

Rich Holschuh: And I was still looking to understand better — I recognized that our connection to place and to our mother was what was missing in all of that. The economic system, the religious system, the value system, the societal system. … I looked to see where those values resided in this land, and it became pretty clear to me that Indigenous people are in — or aspire to be — in relationship with the places that they live. That’s what Indigeneity is.

There are all kinds of lived experiences. We are not less than, here. We are different. We have different experiences, we are descendant communities without a central base. Without that kind of continual presence in one community, without enfranchisement by a federal government that devises laws to suit themselves.

Brent Ferguson: Just a personal view, but I think that if someone is willing to adopt the culture, there should be a venue for acceptance into the culture.

Elodie Reed: This is Brent Ferguson. He says he joined Nulhegan in 2021, since his family’s related to that group’s leader, Don Stevens.

Ferguson is sharing a view here that I’ve heard a number of times from folks affiliated with Vermont’s state-recognized tribes. That historically, Indigenous Nations sometimes adopted settlers into their community, and that they should use the same approach to belonging today.

Brent Ferguson: Much like we as Americans are willing to accept immigrants who want to be American into our fold. It is a great, vast melting pot, and that is perhaps the best thing that Native Americans passed on to their colonial conquerors.

Elodie Reed: From Ferguson’s perspective, if Indigenous Nations continue limiting membership to those who can establish genealogical ties, they risk their population numbers dwindling to the point where they can no longer exist.

Brent Ferguson: And it will eventually result in diminution of all Native American tribes in America, because eventually, we’ll breed ourselves out.

Elodie Reed: OK. So there are people like Brent Ferguson and Rich Holschuh, who joined these communities relatively recently. There are others who have been involved since they were kids.

Bonita Langle: I also testified as a youngin’ before the Vermont State Legislature during our journey to becoming state recognized.

Elodie Reed: Like Bonita Langle, a member of Missisquoi who we heard from in Chapter One.

Bonita Langle: I distinctly remember sitting in the hot seat. As I collected my thoughts sitting in silence before a panel of adults. … These are just a few examples of my involvement with the tribe during my formative years and involvement that continues to this day.

Elodie Reed: And then there’s Burlington resident Andrea Brett.

Andrea Brett: I've always known I'm Abenaki, growing up with those — that culture, the traditions, the spiritual practices

Elodie Reed: Brett is not a member of a state-recognized tribe or a federally recognized Indigenous Nation. But she says she’s Abenaki, that she grew up learning stories in the language from her father, and that she remembers visiting known Abenaki communities as a child, including at Odanak.

Andrea Brett: And because I can't find an official birth record for whatever the current system wants, all of a sudden, I'm not, quote unquote, “real.”

And I'm like, and, hello. I've known this my whole life, and to say who gets to decide that just — the wounds that it's opened up in me, that I thought I had healed?

Elodie Reed: Brett says she thinks there is an issue in Vermont of people claiming to be Abenaki when they are not, and misappropriating Abenaki culture. But she doesn’t think it’s her place to decide who is or isn’t Abenaki, either.

Andrea Brett: And for me, it's difficult, because I feel like I'm in no man's land.

A photo of a hand holding two photos, one of a young girl and another of a man.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Andrea Brett holds photos of herself and her father, who she said taught her stories in the Abenaki language. Andrea is not a member of Vermont's state-recognized tribes or any federally-recognized Indigenous Nation, but says she's Abenaki.

Chawna Cota: I never would go out and claim that I'm a Native American or anything like that. 

Elodie Reed: This is Chawna Cota, of Hinesburg. She’s also not a member of any state-recognized tribe or federally recognized Indigenous Nation.

Chawna Cota: But I definitely would like, I felt a sense of connection to that ancestor, who gave me that sense of connection to the land. And I do think that that's what a lot of people are seeking when they're seeking these things. They want to feel like they're not just a conquering colonist’s descendant.

Elodie Reed: Cota is speaking partly from personal experience.

Chawna Cota: Then there was always the stories that you know, that my grandfather, his dad was part Native. He didn't look fully white, and I think that that's contributed to why it was so easy to believe this.

Elodie Reed: These stories were strong enough that Cota says some in her extended family actually joined a Vermont group in the 1990s — one of the predecessors of today’s state-recognized tribes.

Cota says that no one in her immediate family followed suit — they didn’t feel like they had enough to go on. Still, that rumored Indigenous ancestry was part of her family’s story.

Chawna Cota: And my mom used to say, “Your father was Native enough that he could have gone to college for free if he just tried and applied.”

Elodie Reed: And even though Cota says she always questioned these stories, she also says that they were still meaningful to her.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that she started to understand her family history more completely. The first step happened somewhat randomly — a friend added her to a Facebook group where people, including citizens of Odanak First Nation, were discussing the controversy surrounding Vermont’s state-recognized tribes.

It was a lot for her to process.

Chawna Cota: So yeah, so the information in the group was quite a shock. Like, who are these people to tell us how we can view our own racial identity or ethnic identity. So I was recognizing, like, OK, you know, this is making me feel emotional. And I need to dive deeper in. So I make sure that I understand what they're saying.

A photo of a woman wearing glasses and a striped shirt, standing in front of water at sunset.
Chawna Cota is a Hinesburg resident who says that her family always had stories about rumored Indigenous ancestry. But more recently, she started investigating these stories, and even did a DNA test.

Elodie Reed: Cota listened, and read, and researched. And she arrived at a similar conclusion to the Bureau of Indian Affairs after reviewing the St. Francis/Sokoki Band’s petition for federal acknowledgment. Namely:

Chawna Cota: We didn't have continuous tribes here. And once you really kind of start looking at the history and not just taking what people say at face value, you like, you start to realize like, “Oh, wow, these might just be stories.”

Elodie Reed: It was around this time that she ordered a DNA test for herself. She got the results back just a few weeks ago.

Chawna Cota: When I did the DNA test it showed that we have Basque descent.

Elodie Reed: Basque — a southwestern European ethnic group.

Chawna Cota: And it makes sense now to, like, that is was helpful to understand the like, why they don't look fully white. 

It hurt. It was painful. And I don't think that my family members were lying. I do not. And please do quote me on that, like, I do not believe that my family, any of my family members, were lying. I believe that they thought that it was true. They were just caught up in it. And it was easy to believe because of how my grandfather looked.

Elodie Reed: It might take Cota a while to fully process everything. But one thing she’s already decided is that she wants to share her story. And just a heads up — you can hear Cota’s children loudly sharing their stories in the background, too.

Chawna Cota: When I finally did get the DNA, it was like a big unpacking moment that has like, I'm, I'm actually just coming out of in terms of like, OK, alright, I'm willing to talk about this, I want to talk about this. I feel like I, I understand it. I do think that I have that kind of unique perspective of like, “Hey, these are, we grew up with these stories, but you need, we need to make sure, you need to make sure that your stories are true.” And if you haven't done that work, then yeah, there's only– you should probably do that work.

Elodie Reed: Cota’s story is not unique. In fact, this happened in my own family. Growing up, I was told my paternal grandmother was, quote, “part Native American,” with zero proof we were connected to the Mi'kmaq or Abenaki communities we claimed.

Philip Deloria: Because I think white American culture does have a thing about Indians that we don't quite understand.

Elodie Reed: This is Philip Deloria, Harvard University history professor and citizen of the federally recognized Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He wrote a book about how white Americans have long imitated Indigenous people. It’s called Playing Indian.

Here he is in 1998, speaking about the book.

Philip Deloria: Americans have invested in the very weird practice of dressing up like Native people throughout American history. … The Boston Tea Party, of course, who could forget the Boston Tea Party, which we all learn in fifth grade, or the Tammany Society of New York, sort of a fraternal order, the leaders that were called sachems, and they had the Indian rituals and these kinds of things.

Elodie Reed: Two other scholars point to theories about why settlers, quote, “play Indian.”

And these theories have to do with what Chawna Cota said a few minutes ago:

Chawna Cota: They want to feel like they're not just a conquering colonist’s descendant.

Elodie Reed: Darryl Leroux, who wrote the peer-reviewed article published over the summer about Vermont’s state-recognized tribes, cites the “racial shifting” theory. This comes from anthropologist Circe Sturm, who argues that during the civil rights movements of the 1960s, white Americans started “minoritizing” themselves — as in, claiming minority identities.

Darryl Leroux: To sort of suggest that they really aren't to blame for the ways in which racism are sort of occurring in the 20th century.

Elodie Reed: Kim TallBear, the University of Alberta professor, takes this theory one step further. She says “self-Indigenization” is an example of late-stage settler colonialism.

Here she is speaking at a UVM presentation earlier this year:

Kim TallBear: We see the culmination of this Indigenous death to make settler life when settler states’ citizens with no belonging to living tribal nations take a DNA test and pronounce, “I am 5% Native American.” Playing Indian along with assuming definitional control and property rights in our biological and our kinship relations enables settler society to appropriate yet more of our resources.

Who gets the power, influence, money?

Elodie Reed: TallBear isn’t the only one concerned about that misappropriation of resources intended for Indigenous peoples. The federally recognized Delaware Nation in Oklahoma even appointed a representative to combat what it calls “Corporations Posing as Indigenous Nations,” or CPAIN.

Rich Holschuh: All right. I'd like to call this regular meeting of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, June 14, 2023, to order.

Elodie Reed: The Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs is tasked with overseeing policies and programs for Indigenous peoples in Vermont. It’s appointed by Vermont’s governor.

And in the couple years I’ve been covering these meetings, no commissioners have been citizens of Odanak or Wôlinak First Nations.

In fact, members of Vermont’s state-recognized tribes get priority as appointees. And there are tangible benefits for those groups as a result.

Among its business this past year, the commission received a grant to write up an Abenaki curriculum for Vermont schools.

Jeff Benay: And I'm really pleased to say that Seventh Generation Foundation is committing $50,000 toward this initiative. 

Elodie Reed: They also welcomed the president of Vermont Law and Graduate School after it announced that members of state-recognized tribes are now eligible for its First Nations Scholarship.

Jeff Benay: It's very exciting.

Elodie Reed: State-recognized tribes are generally eligible for funding from four federal agencies, and in Vermont, members of Congress have earmarked money, too. If you remember the nonprofit Alnôbaiwi from the beginning of this series — the one that put on the exhibit at the Ethan Allen Homestead Museum — they received a quarter-million dollars in 2021 with help from then-Sen. Patrick Leahy. In 2022, Sen. Bernie Sanders got the Nulhegan state-recognized tribe $350,000 to appoint a cultural preservation educator and coordinator.

A photo of a plaque reading Abenaki tribal learning center.
Kevin Trevellyan
Vermont Public
A nonprofit attached to the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi state-recognized tribe recently received $500,000 in federal funds to renovate a space for "tribal programming."

The nonprofit attached to Missisquoi recently received half a million dollars in federal funds to renovate a space for, quote, “tribal programming.” And another half a million dollars from the state funded a storytelling project from the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association.

Even Vermont Public, through a fund for independent creators, has awarded Vermont Folklife $8,000 for a documentary series about traditional cultural practices — and this series is being made in collaboration with two artists who belong to Vermont state-recognized tribes.

There’s also the recently-created Vermont Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was established in 2022 by Vermont legislation to address the harm state policies have caused marginalized groups, including Indigenous peoples.

Rick O’Bomsawin, Odanak’s tribal council chief, says he worries about what would happen if the commission were to make reparations.

Chief Rick O’Bomsawin: You got to understand, this is really once again, this is really a money issue. And when things are — when they try to fix the wrongs with money, many wolves come to the sheep’s pack, so there will be many people out there trying to go after this money and these claims. I just want to really, really make sure this all goes to the right people.

Elodie Reed: A member of the Elnu state-recognized tribe was recently appointed as one of the group’s three commissioners — an $80,000-a-year position.

Beyond the money issue, Chief Rick O’Bomsawin and other officials and citizens from Odanak are upset about the authority that positions like this give Vermont’s state-recognized tribes.

Chief Rick O’Bomsawin: So sitting on a commission like that, making decisions for our, you know, where things are going to go, to help fix the wrong that was done to our people, I would have liked it to be someone who could clearly identify that they were one of our people.

A photo of people sitting at a table, with one person gesturing.
David Littlefield
Vermont Public File
Odanak First Nation Chief Rick O'Bomsawin speaks during the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs meeting on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

Rich Holschuh: It's really clear to me that this is politics. And politics is about power and control.

Elodie Reed: Rich Holschuh again, the chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs.

On this matter of politics — some members and allies of Vermont's state-recognized tribes have wondered, publicly, whether Odanak is pushing for more of a platform in Vermont so it can make land claims and profit off of hydropower projects in the region. And they allege UVM professor David Massell is helping them do that. He’s the professor who invited members of Odanak to speak at UVM in 2022.

Massell and the hydropower company, Hydro-Quebec, deny that they're working together. I also submitted a public records request to UVM this spring, asking for emails between Massell and Hydro-Quebec in the months before and after the UVM event. UVM said it had no such records.

Back to Rich Holschuh. He says he actually understands why Odanak and Wôlinak First Nations are speaking more forcefully here in Vermont.

Rich Holschuh: That's their job. That's their charge. They have been given federal recognition by the Canadian government, and that, that does come with certain privileges and benefits and accesses. I don't begrudge that at all. I think it's wonderful, that they've been able to do what they've done. I don't think that it needs to diminish anyone else at all. I don't understand that kind of thinking.

Elodie Reed: I think they're saying that they, feel diminished, specifically in this part of their territory, because of state recognition and the power that's conferred on the state-recognized tribes — that there, there's just like, not space for them in our system at the moment.

Rich Holschuh: It's not competition for a limited pie, to use that really, you know, worn out analogy.

Elodie Reed: I think people would disagree with you. I think there are a lot of folks who say it is a limited pie.

Rich Holschuh: The pie is created by the limitations of the federal governments, by the colonial governments, they created that situation. And so within that system, I can see that being perceived as competition. I do not believe the system is valid.

A photo of a small blue and brick church with another brick building in the background.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
The Église de Saint-François-de-Sales — a Catholic church — is pictured in front of the Musée des Abénakis, which is housed in the former Catholic Indian Day school in Odanak. The U.S. and Canada designed schools like these to remove Indigenous children from their language and culture and assimilate them into settler society. Former students of schools like these share stories of horrific abuse.

Elodie Reed: There’s no doubt that governments from colonial times up through today created and perpetuated systems that have oppressed and marginalized Indigenous peoples, to say the least. But scholar Kim TallBear says groups like Vermont’s state-recognized tribes are operating within colonial systems in a completely different way than Indigenous Nations like Odanak and Wôlinak.

Kim TallBear: Whereas actual Native nations who have managed to survive these vicious colonial nation states must articulate our relational rules as best we can, within the compromised spaces available to us.

Elodie Reed: By nature of being long-identified as Indigenous peoples, Odanak and Wôlinak First Nation citizens have been subjected to things like residential schools, family separation, cultural assimilation. Experiences, she says, that groups who have only recently become visible, such as Vermont’s state-recognized tribes, do not have.

Kim TallBear: Romanticized narratives of hiding in plain sight are used by self-Indigenizers to discredit and further dislocate native people from the landscape of the living.

Self Indigenizers build their authoritative voices by grabbing the mic and speaking from false historical foundations about actual Native peoples lives and what should be done about and to us.

Elodie Reed: I asked Rich Holschuh about this, too, the concept of, quote, “grabbing the mic,” and the possibility of handing it back.

Elodie Reed: If they're asking you, though, to step aside in order for their voices to be heard like, what's your response to that?

Rich Holschuh: I support the voices of all Indigenous people being heard. I have never said that they should not be heard. I support that.

Elodie Reed: Is there, are there ways you can proactively facilitate that? I know we've talked about a past commission meeting with you know, they asked to be on the agenda. They weren't put on it, you certainly let them speak. But even just the formality of putting them on the agenda — that wasn't done. And I'm, I'm wondering if, if you think that was a mistake, and if there are formal ways to include those voices, from people who just continually say they don't feel included?

Rich Holschuh: I am open to exploring any of those things. I don't know what it would be. I know that— I know how this commission was statutorily convened, what its mission is in law. I have tried to allow people to speak. 

A photo of someone holding a piece of paper with a meeting agenda for the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Under state law, members from Vermont's state-recognized tribes get priority as appointees for the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs.

Mali Obomsawin: We have lots of allies, we need allies. We're very welcoming. We're very open.

Elodie Reed: Mali Obomsawin is an Odanak citizen you’ve heard in Chapter One. She says it’s important for direct descendants of the Western Abenaki First Nations to reconnect. And then, for those who are not direct descendants:

Mali Obomsawin: There are so many ways to respectfully and appropriately be a part of a Native community without having to become Native yourself. … We just don't want to be extracted from, anymore.

Elodie Reed: So, where can things go from here? That’s when we come back.

What happens now?

Elodie Reed: With pretty much everyone I talked to for this series — even those whose voices I couldn’t fit — I asked some version of the question: Where do you want things to go from here?

There are a few general camps of thought.

Vermont’s governor, Phil Scott, falls in the first camp — avoidance.

In September of last year, Gov. Scott suggested he would be willing to listen to Odanak First Nation officials. But then his office kept saying they hadn’t set up a time, and finally in April of this year, he said it was not a high priority for him.

Elodie Reed: Governor, are you interested in learning more about it?

Gov. Phil Scott: Again, I'm not going to get caught in the middle of this. We took action 20 years ago and recognized the Vermont Abenakis. This sounds like it's a dispute between two factions within the Abenaki and Odanaks. And I think that they need to settle it. It's not something that I'm going to get involved in.

Elodie Reed: The governor did say during this press briefing last spring that he might be more inclined to meet if it’s something the Vermont Legislature was calling for. But that’s not what he was hearing. Indeed, shortly after the press briefing, the Vermont House, Senate and U.S. Congressional delegation all issued resolutions and statements upholding the four state-recognized tribes. Gov. Scott has done this as well.

The second camp of thought about how to move forward is putting aside differences. That’s what Vermont’s state-recognized tribes and their allies are proposing.

In a statement over the summer, they wrote that between themselves and Odanak and Wôlinak First Nations, they, quote, “can and must progress toward healing relationships.”

Rich Holschuh: If you meet me, I'm not your enemy. I want to be your friend.

Elodie Reed: Here’s Rich Holschuh, the chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs.

Rich Holschuh: I was not present but I heard that when family came down to Ethan Allen Homestead Museum to talk about that controversial photograph that a lot of personal and pleasurable conversations ended up coming out of it. And that's what I'm talking about.

Elodie Reed: Holschuh is referring to that protest at the Ethan Allen Homestead Museum. The one over the photograph in the exhibit curated by the Vermont nonprofit Alnôbaiwi.

David Schein: I think this is a great opportunity for the Abenaki on both sides of the border to start talking.

Elodie Reed: This is David Schein, the administrator for Alnôbaiwi. He’s not Indigenous, but was among those from the nonprofit who spoke with the citizens and officials from Odanak.

David Schein: Recognized bands in Vermont are not going to give up their identity. And the Odanak folks are very, very intent on denying that authenticity — it seems to me, and I don’t want to speak for ‘em — And there's where you start.

A photo of a view from the top of a mountain of other mountains colorful with foliage, with a blue lake in the background.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
One Odanak official, the First Nation's band council manager Daniel Nolett, says what he wants is for the Abenaki peoples of Odanak and Wôlinak to feel like they're home when they come to Vermont.

Elodie Reed: And this brings us to the third camp of thought — respecting the sovereignty of Odanak and Wôlinak First Nation. People in this camp say that they’re not so much interested in talking this through with state-recognized tribes. Instead, they want to be treated as the authority on all things Abenaki.

Daniel Nolett: This is the main goal that, this is the main thing we want to get at. We be the spokesperson.

Elodie Reed: Daniel Nolett, Odanak’s band council general manager, has been among the Odanak officials most active in advocating for Vermont to respect the sovereignty of Odanak and Wôlinak First Nations. He says what he wants is essentially a return back home.

Daniel Nolett: To feel that we're home when we go to Vermont, and we have free will to practice our own traditional activities

Elodie Reed: In addition to this kind of physical homecoming to Vermont’s landscape, Nolett says he wants a sort of narrative homecoming.

Daniel Nolett: Just to have, you know, the recognition that, yeah, we were and we are still the original people of Vermont, you know, the Abenaki of Odanak and Wôlinak. And from now on would be the true spokesperson. Anybody in Vermont wants to hear, you know, what about the Abenaki is what's, what's their, their history, what's their story what what what is their? What are their traditions, you know, their culture — that we would be the spokesperson.

A photo of three women singing, with one playing a drum. One is wearing a shirt reading "dismantle colonial borders."
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Odanak First Nation citizen Denise Watso, left, sings with fellow Odanak citizen Mali Obomsawin and members of Kontiwennenhawi, a Mokawk women's singing group, at an event at UVM on April 28, 2023.

Denise Watso: We've already had so much stolen.  

Elodie Reed: Denise Watso is the Odanak citizen we heard in the first episode of this series, protesting the use of the photograph by the nonprofit Alnôbaiwi. We also heard her in Chapter Two, speaking in opposition to state recognition.

Denise Watso: Stolen lands we've endured, we had disease that when, you know, Europeans hit. We've had stolen children from residential schools, and our culture and our language stolen from us, historical traumas perpetrated from centuries of this. And now the only thing we have left for people to steal from us are our very own identities — our culture, our Abenaki Nation.

Elodie Reed: Watso has been saying the same thing for a long time, for more than a decade. She says she had to take a break — she got tired — but has returned to this fight, because she sees truth, quote, “scratching the surface.”

For instance, Watso thinks it’s possible that Vermont could investigate its recognition process. Remember, that’s what Odanak and Wôlinak Nations called for over the summer.

Denise Watso: My hope is one day that this does with more progressive legislators that have the courage to take this on and look at it and really, truly look at it and listen to our voices — that’s what I hope for.

Elodie Reed: One of the key lawmakers from the state recognition process says there actually is a path to get this re-examination underway. Here’s former state Sen. Vince Illuzzi.

Vince Illuzzi: They have a right to petition our successors to raise those issues to see if the General Assembly wants to reconsider any of the recognition requirements that are written into law. But to simply continue to harken back to 13, 15, 20 years ago, doesn't really, I think, warrant serious consideration, because we did listen to them. And we disagreed with them. And they simply continue to disagree with our, the position that we took.

Elodie Reed: We’re going to close this series where we opened it, on that chilly spring day in the parking lot at the Ethan Allen Homestead Museum in Burlington.

Denise Watso: If you're called out on it, again and again — and I've heard this over and over — “We just want to honor you” well, to honor us is to listen to us, listen to what we are saying.

Elodie Reed: On that day, Denise Watso was finally able to speak in Vermont, more than a decade after being shut out of the state recognition process.

Denise Watso: To me, today is empowering. You know, to be able to talk and to voice my upsetness with the people in that room.

Elodie Reed: Empowering to have open disagreement — after so many years of not having the conversation at all.


Thanks so much for listening to “Recognized,” a special series from Brave Little State. What did you think? You can let us know by sending an email to, or by leaving a voicemail on the BLS hotline: 802-552-4880. We’re also on Instagram andReddit @bravestatevt.

“Recognized” was reported by Elodie Reed. Sabine Poux is our producer. The senior producer and managing editor is Josh Crane. Additional editing from our executive producer, Angela Evancie, as well as Tristan Ahtone, Brittany Patterson, Myra Flynn and Julia Furukawa. Julia Furukawa, Corey Dockser and David Savoie contributed reporting. Extra support from Mark Davis and Sophie Stephens. Theme music is by Ty Gibbons; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.

This episode came together with help from a lot of people. Special thanks to:

Sarah Ashworth, Drew Bartley, Arthur Blackhawk, Paul Carnahan, Aaron Desrochers, John Devino, Prudence Doherty, Jessica Dolan, Liam Elder-Connors, Mary Engisch, Abagael Giles, Angie Grove, Peter Hirschfeld, Kianna Haskin, Laurie Kigonya, Randy Kritkausky, Lexi Krupp, David Littlefield, Jeanne Morningstar Kent, Kaylee Mumford, Laura Nakasaka, Cori Princell, Dominique Ritchot, Christopher Roy, Katherine Sims, Marjorie Strong, Paul René Tamburro, Fran Tobin, Kevin Trevellyan, Noah Willamarin-Cutter, Vermont State Archives, CCTV, NPR, C-SPAN, the Indigenous Journalists Association and the New England News Collaborative.

As always, our show is better when you’re a part of it:

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public and a proud member of the NPR Network.

Corrected: April 5, 2024 at 12:06 PM EDT
This story has been updated to note that only the Vermont Senate instituted a state residency requirement for testimony on state recognition legislation in 2011 and 2012. The Vermont House does not appear to have made a similar requirement.
Corrected: October 26, 2023 at 2:31 PM EDT
A previous version of this story referred to Gordon Day as a historian. He is actually an anthropologist, and we have updated the story to reflect this.
Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
Josh Crane is part of Vermont Public's Engagement Journalism team. He's the senior producer and managing editor for Brave Little State, a podcast based on questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by the audience, and runs Vermont Public's Sonic ID project.
Sabine Poux is a reporter/producer with Brave Little State. She comes to Vermont by way of Kenai, Alaska, where she was a reporter, news director, and on-air host for almost three years. Her reporting on commercial fishing and energy has been syndicated across Alaska and on NPR.
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